The loss of the SS Penguin
Based on the Original Research File of the late Kelly Tarlton
Text by Bryan F Dillon.
Images of the SS Penguin from Kelly’s Archives
The Penguin referred to by some today as New Zealandâs Titanic was a loss with one of the highest costs in human life both in number dead and percentage of those on board of twentieth century New Zealand shipwrecks. Only a fraction of the size
of the Titanic at 67 metres and a mere 824 tonnes gross. The impact of her loss on New Zealand was every bit as great as the loss of the Titanic was on Europe and the USA.
It is over 90 years since that storm ravaged night when the Penguin was last seen. Ninety years of controversy and argument. Controversy every bit as deep as that surrounding the loss of the Titanic. The master was blamed for the loss, but was he to blame?
Commanded by Capt FE Naylor the Penguin left Picton at a little after 6 pm on the night of 12 February 1909. Captain Naylor was an able and experienced Master who had served with the Union Steamship Company since 1897. He was very used to the many moods of Cook Strait which separates the North and South Islands. Shortly before 8pm the Penguin cleared the Tory Channel and Captain Naylor gave a course to steer of âsouth east by eastâ, giving a sensible allowance for the tidal set of the Cook Strait on that fateful night. Some accounts stated that the weather was foul from the start, others stated it was comfortable at first but deteriorated rapidly soon afterwards. It must be assumed that the varying reports regarding the weather must be directly proportional to the sea going experience of the witness making the statement. However the one thing that we can be certain of is that it was not a good night to be crossing the Cook Strait, and the Cook Strait was not in one of her better moods.
Rain had started soon after entering the Strait and it had become steadily worse, reducing the visibility through which the Penguin was being steered.
Back then the four main tools the shipâs Master and Navigator had were compass, sextant, charts and vision. In 1909 long before radar, radio direction finders, global positioning systems and VHF radio fixes. If you took away any one these four tools the navigatorâs job was certainly not made any easier. Take away the visibility, as had been taken from Captain Naylor, and the navigator was forced to work on dead reckoning. On dead reckoning, as all navigators know, outside and unseen forces can dramatically influence the position of the vessel without any warning to the navigator!
Knowing this, Captain Naylor had used his judgement and had made a generous allowance with his course. He laid a course that should have seen his ship safe. He had also increased the watch/lookouts. At 9.40 pm he altered his course to east by south. Around 20 minutes later at approximately 10 pm disaster struck.
The first knowledge of a problem was the great juddering screech that shook the whole vessel. Not an alarming judder but noticeable, although some passengers stated they heard and felt nothing at all. At first Captain Naylor did not think his vessel was in any danger. He did though order speed reduced and the order all hands on deck was given. He also turned the vessel to face the weather to give the Penguin an easier ride. The Second Engineer Officer Mr Luke was on duty below and had heard the full force of everything and knew from instinct that the situation was serious. He was first to inspect below foreward and reported back to Chief Engineer Officer Urquhart that the flooding was fast and the pumps were losing against the inrush of water. Chief Urquhart directly ordered Luke to report to Captain Naylor that the ship was rapidly sinking beyond the control of the crew. At this news Captain Naylor ordered the crew to swing out the boats and gave the order to abandon ship.
This was not an easy order for the Captain. All professional seafarers know that your best lifeboat is your ship but his was sinking fast. Unlike the Titanic, the Penguin was well prepared. She carried an excess of floats and life jackets. There was a jacket and a place in a lifeboat for everyone, and more. She was equipped beyond her capacity and beyond the legal requirements of her day. One up for the Union Steamship Company over the White Star Line. Setting a standard in 1909 that the rest of the world took another 60 years to catch up with.
However the amount of lifesaving equipment was not Captain Naylorâs concern. The weather was worse than ever, sheets of stinging ice, cold rain driven by gale force winds, buffeting over swollen seas which threw salty spray from their crests directly at those on board. The Cook Strait was not in a good mood. It was not a night to abandon ship! He looked around and watched his once proud vessel going down by the head, and pitching against the waves crashing into her. He knew Lady Fate was not dealing him a fair hand and he feared many would die, within moments he was to be proven correct.
Lifeboat number three was damaged by the sea and motions of the Penguin before it was even clear of the davits. Boat number two was swamped and overturned within a few minutes of launching. Lifeboat number four lost her stern fall whilst being launched and dropped her crew and passengers into the raging sea, moments later the forward fall gave way and the boat crashed into the water. Several attempts were made by those struggling in the water to upright this boat but time and time again these failed. Lifeboat number one was swamped and lost within seconds of hitting the water. Lifeboat number five suffered much the same fate as lifeboat number two.
The liferafts or lifefloats were launched directly into the raging sea and the remaining crew and passengers jumped and swam directly to them. Many grabbed hold of floating debris and hung on, paddling in the direction of the shore. Others simply swam. Their direction driven by the tide and waves.
Whilst all of the mayhem was happening, one man (Third Officer Loosemore) stood alone on the ever rising stern of the Penguin. Without thought of personal safety he was firing a trained sequence of distress rockets. He was last reported as re-entering the sinking vessel in search of more rockets. Whilst inside some reports claimed there was an explosion on board widely believed to be the boilers. The vessel appeared to almost break in two and disappeared within moments.
Of 105 persons on board only 30 survived. None were children and only one woman. Many of the dead were believed to have reached the coast alive only to have been killed by the raging sea throwing them onto the rocky shore. Survivors reported hearing their screams in the wind. To have made it so far, and safely through miles of raging seas and rain only to be killed within feet of safety.
The controversy has never died. The Court of Enquiry decided that the Penguin had hit Thoms Rocks and sunk nearby. Clearly the Captainâs fault! Captain Naylor himself suggested he thought it possible he had hit Thoms Rock.
Others at the time claimed the captain was on course and had struck the waterlogged, part submerged hull of the vessel Rio Loge. In support they point out that many experienced persons of the Cook Strait Coastline at the time of the Penguins loss claimed Thoms Rock could not have been the cause as the bodies and driftwood landed ashore too close to Thoms Rock especially considering the strong weather and tide direction of that night. They claimed the vessel would have been much further south and further seaward, much closer to Captain Naylorâs intended course. In support of their claims they sited where the wreckage from the Nambucca (1896) had washed ashore after she sank at Thoms Rock and also that from the Woollabra (1907) lost nearby.
The wreckage of the Penguin has been much sought after and never found. From time to time claims have surfaced about the wreckage being located but these have never been confirmed.
Well the Titanic herself has long since been found. Is it not now about time that New Zealandâs Titanic was found. When the Titanic was found it cleared the name of the Master of the Califronian. He was proven not to be near at the time. Will finding the Penguin clear the name of Captain Naylor or will it prove the Court of Enquiry findings correct ?